Daniel Urchick is a defense and foreign policy analyst and a Young Professionals in Foreign Policy East Europe and Eurasia Fellow. Daniel tweets at @DanielUrchick. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Ukrainian-Separatist conflict in the Donbas.
Date Originally Written: February 20, 2017.
Date Originally Published: March 2, 2017.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article is written from the perspective of a Ukrainian National Security Advisor, offering options on the possible utilization of the pro-Ukrainian government territorial defense battalions, supplementing the regular military and Ukrainian Government’s efforts to either defeat the separatists in the Donbas region, or create a more favorable situation on the ground for the next round of peace talks.
Background: The Ukrainian military appears to have begun what has been characterized as a “creeping offensive ” to the north of Donetsk City in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Ukrainian Military forces have made limited advances into the neutral space between government and separatist-controlled territory, known as the “gray zone,” to capture several contested villages such as Novoluhanske north of the city of Horvlika. It is estimated that about 5,000 Russian troops remain in the Donbas in various capacities along with about 40,000 pro-Russian separatists. The Ukrainian Military has an estimated 60,000 soldiers along the line of contact with an additional unofficial estimate of 10,000-11,000 “territorial defense battalion” personnel along the front and dispersed around the country. There are currently 40 territorial defense battalions operating in Ukraine today.
Most of the territorial defense battalions were formed by wealthy business oligarchs who provide the majority of the funding and limited supplies. As a result, most men in any given battalion are likely more loyal to the oligarch that formed the organization than to the State. Most battalions are integrated into the Ukrainian Military to some degree. Some remain completely outside the official Ukrainian Military structure. Still others are in the process of being more fully integrated into the Ukrainian Military structure. Non-integrated defense battalions do not receive sufficient materiel and logistical support from the military thus they cannot adequately defend against or attack the heavily armed separatists. Integrated battalions fair little better in their armament and have been provided second tier light armor assets.
Significance: The arming of territorial defense battalions is an important question aimed at winning the conflict with the Separatists in the Donbas, or at the least, producing a more favorable situation on the ground in future peace negotiations. The battalions are an important source of manpower with high morale that could be better utilized. Providing better equipment to the battalions could radically impact the domestic political situation in the Ukraine. Thus, the right answer to the question of arming the battalions is important to both the defense and political communities in Ukraine, but also to every Western nation supporting Ukraine.
Option #1: Supply territorial defense battalions full access to the Ukrainian Military’s arsenal of modern heavy armored equipment and other advanced weapon systems.
Risk: Territorial defense battalions may still not fully submit to the authority of the Ukrainian Military and remain more loyal to their oligarch founders, increasing warlordism. Battalions with low discipline may also choose to upgrade their equipment in an unauthorized manner, endangering their safety and the safety of friendly forces around them. The obligation to maintain, fund, and supply armored assets fall on the Ukrainian State which has faced budget constraints since the September 2015 sovereign debt restructuring deal. Providing territorial defense battalions with heavy armor assets could give Russia, the DNR and LNR pretext for an overt arms race and security dilemma, leading to a breakdown in the relative stability of the Minsk II Agreement.
Gain: If used in a defensive capacity, the fully equipped territorial defense battalions could become a highly capable reinforcement to the normal line of contact against any possible separatist (counter)offensives, raising the level of deterrence. As a credible deterrent force, the battalions will allow the military to mass its regular forces for local superiority should it choose to go on a larger offensive. Supplying the battalions with better equipment is a popular political move. Option #1 would reinforce the coalition government of President Poroshenko, which has right-wing elements, who have been the most supportive of past armament plans. Territorial defense battalions are incentivized to remain operating within the Ukrainian military force structure and supporting the government that has now adequately supported them. Equipment interoperability is maintained throughout Ukrainian forces operating along the line of contact, easing logistical problems that have plagued the military.
Option #2: Continue to restrict the supply of modern heavy armor assets and other advanced vehicle systems to the territorial defense battalions.
Risk: The territorial defense battalions, as an important pool of military manpower that can be utilized along the line of contact for both defensive and offensive operations, is deprived of equipment that would be critical to their survival in such operations. The Poroshenko Government risks increased public dissent by going against public support for arming these battalions. President Poroshenko also risks further splintering his coalition and pushing the right-wing elements of parliament further away from cooperation. The battalions will not have an important incentive to remain operating within an official force structure, as their perception of being cannon fodder grows.
Gain: Right-wing affiliated territorial defense battalions, or battalions with particularly strong loyalty to an oligarch who could be potentially hostile to the Poroshenko regime in the future, are denied heavy weaponry. Battalions that have low morale, or are facing discipline or disbandment, will not be able to defect to the Separatist-controlled territory with important heavy weapon stocks. The Ukrainian government does not have to provide funding and supplies for an expensive military equipment program during a time of fiscal constraint. The restriction helps prevent the flow of weapons onto the black market from these battalions low on funds, morale or discipline. The DNR and LNR, as well as Russia, are not given a pretext for breaking off the Minsk Agreements entirely or for launching a preemptive offensive.
Other Comments: None.
 Webb, Isaac. (2017, January 26). “Ukrainian forces creep into war’s gray zone,” KyivPost, retrieved from: http://www.pressreader.com/ukraine/kyiv-post/20170127/281500750970900
 Pejic, Igor. (2016, October 05). “Kiev’s Volunteer Battalions in the Donbass Conflict,” South Front, retrieved from: https://southfront.org/kievs-volunteer-battalions-in-the-donbass-conflict/